Conflicts of interest remain as docs receive $760M from drug makers

Physicians continue to struggle with conflicts of interest related to accepting payments for promotional work for pharmaceutical companies as a new report shows drug makers paid more than $760 million to doctors between 2009 and the second quarter of 2011, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Among the highest paid, Gerald Sacks spoke and consulted for four companies in ProPublica's Dollars for Docs database, earning $270,825 from Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, and Cephalon in 2010--not including travel costs and meals.

Six physicians who received more than $100,000 practice at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, which is instituting a new policy this month that requires doctors report all payments from drug companies annually and restricts them from participating in drug company speaker's bureaus. "The idea here is we're always dealing with potential conflicts and what we wanted as an organization is to have a mechanism by which they are being managed," David Ansell, Rush's chief medical officer, told the Tribune.

ProPublica and its database are not without controversy, however. "They make it look like physicians are not impartial or are in the service of the drug companies, and can cause patients to wonder if physicians' recommendations for treatment are being made because it was the best option based on their clinical expertise or because they have a relationship with the company," said Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center Johnston. "I don't think many physicians have taken that risk (of patient distrust) as seriously as they should."

Chicago pulmonologist Israel Rubinstein, who received more than $117,000 from two companies, said accepting payments from drug companies doesn't sway him in favor of those manufacturers. "I take a generic approach (when speaking about treatments) based on the published guidelines where those drugs are indicated," he said.

The analysis also found the payouts to many doctors dropped significantly last year. For example, pulmonologist Veena Antony was paid at least $88,000 to give promotional talks for GlaxoSmithKline in 2009. But last year, the Birmingham, Ala., doctor chose not to give the presentations because she was concerned her patients would think her advice was tainted. "You don't even want the appearance that I might be influenced by anything that a company gave," she said.

To learn more:
- read the Chicago Tribune article